by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
There was a time when fight scenes were for entertainment, and were not an art form. Then, in 1971, Bruce Lee introduced The Big Boss. This film was Lee’s breakthrough in China, the beginning of his short, but legendary, career. What makes this movie standout is its complex and emotional fight scenes. Everyone who has seen a Bruce Lee fight scene knows that he is very emotional (which makes for some of the best fight scenes, in my opinion). The end fight against “The Boss” is what illustrates this quality the most.
That final fight scene is approximately six minutes long, which is a fairly long fight for a Bruce Lee film. But, it never feels like it is too long. Now, how does one judge whether or not a fight scene is too long?
One way to make long action sequences feel shorter is to cut away to something else (example Lord of the Rings: Two Towers – Helms Deep Battle). Other ways, used during the final showdown between two men, are to either edit the shots or pace each shot properly. The Big Boss builds tension in the first thirty seconds of the fight scene with a stare down. Buildup is a key element to dishing out excitement, and is something that most fight scenes do not do today (as evident in The Raid and the Daredevil television show, to name a couple). The Raid has fight sequences that simply start, go for quite a few minutes nonstop, and then end (which works, to a degree). The Big Boss, on the other hand, pauses several times during the fights. These pauses are what I call “breaks”.
Breaks are two-to-five-second pauses in a fight scene, designed to give the audience breathers, while building more tension before returning to the action. Breaks create room for story in fight scenes. If people fought for five-to-six constant minutes, the audience would be overwhelmed. Big Boss uses breaks with moments such as the leg grappling scene and when the boss first pulls out the knives. Such actions not only progress the fight scene, but also create suspense for the viewers. And, breaks are not solely an Eastern style. Western films such as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also use them, but in the form of dialogue.
A modern film that uses breaks is Ip Man. The most iconic fight scene in the film is where the titular character fights ten men at the same time. Watch it, and observe all of the breaks.
What I thought was weird about The Big Boss is that most of the fight scenes are short. In the fight between the boss’s son and Lee, the fight takes three punches! Yes, three punches! This was the fight right before the main fight, mind you. So, it was refreshing to see the final fight take much longer.
For me, a fight scene becomes too long when its stops being a story. It is monotonous when it is literally all about people kicking the crap out of each other for the hell of it. Early martial arts film understood that a fight scene needs a higher purpose. Look at the difference between Bruce Lee’s fight scenes and modern fight scenes. The fight in The Big Boss is about six minutes, but half of that consists of anticipation; the other half is of the actual fighting. Today’s action movies, in general, fail to capture that feel. Typically, all they have to offer is four minutes of merely constant fighting. The more cinematic experience is found within The Big Boss. Just look at the end of the fight—it’s a complete shock! Why? Because it’s a million times more shocking than anything seen in the film up to that point. In other words, I wasn’t numbed by constant action before that shock occurred. Today, it’s rare to have that experience, unless it is a brutal kill (which is usually done for no other purpose than to shock the audience with needlessly graphic violence).
While I think that this is the weakest final fight compared to the other Bruce Lee final fight scenes, The Big Boss is still nothing short of great. (This was his first film, so his speed and intensity were not yet as masterful as his later films). A fight scene cannot feel long; otherwise the filmmaker will lose his audience. Granted, the scene did something no other Lee movie did, take a little too long. Nonetheless, Lee demonstrated with this film that he knew how to make a fight scene feel like an essential part of the story.
Here is the final fight. Let me know what you think of it.